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Narrator

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English

A narrator is the imagined 'voice' assumed to be telling the story to the audience. A narrator is often the main character. However, the narrator can be absent from, or present in, the narrative events. This determines how much they know about the events they are narrating, and therefore how much they can tell the audience. The separation of the narrator and the narrator's point of view allows the reader to understand the characters' different narrative perspectives.

What is a Narrator?

Aristotle (Poetics, 335 BC), defined three kinds of narrator: a) a speaker who uses their own voice, b) a speaker who assumes the voices of other people, and c) a speaker who uses a mixture of their own voice and the voices of others. Identifying who the narrator is, and what the narrator is trying to tell us (through their voice or the voices of others) is crucial to understanding any literary work.

Consider the opening of the film Iron Man 3. 'A famous man once said we create our own demons. Who said that, what does that even mean, doesn't matter. I said it because he said it'. Who is the narrator? What is the narrator trying to establish? What does this piece of narration tell you about the rest of the film?

More importantly, do you trust this narrator?

Narrator, unreliable narrator example, StudySmarterTony Stark or Iron Man? pixabay.com

The narrator is a quasi-fictional speaker constructed for the purposes of the story. The narrator's views and opinions often differ from the author's views. There are many types of narrator. To categorize a narrator, the reader must determine the degree of their participation in the story - much like the narrative point of view.

What are the types of narrators?

What is a first, second, and third-person narrator?

A first, second, and third-person narrators all have a different point of view of the story, and the reader can identify them using the pronouns that define them:

  • First-person narrator - A narrator who uses 'I' pronouns and is usually involved as a witness or an active participant in the story.
  • Second-person narrator - A narrator who uses 'You' pronouns. These narrators create ambiguity because the reader is unsure whether they are being addressed directly and thus cannot easily know how much participation they have. This is quite rare in fiction.
  • Third-person limited narrator - A narrator who uses 'he/she/they/gender neutral' pronouns. They may be invisible, detached, or intrusive, making comments on characters or events in the story. Third-person narrators are often considered reliable except they can only relate their own point of view.
  • Third-person omniscient narrator - An all-knowing narrator who also uses he/she/they/gender-neutral pronouns, but stands outside events. This narrator has access to all of the characters' unspoken thoughts and knowledge of events wherever and whenever they occur in the novel.

What is a reliable and unreliable narrator?

A reliable narrator's account of the story is usually taken as authoritative. The reader believes the narrator because they present a straightforward, credible account of events.

The unreliable narrator is an untrustworthy storyteller who often uses the first-person point of view. Their account, perception, or interpretation of events may be faulty, misleading, biased, or distorted. An unreliable narrator's storytelling departs from a 'true' account or understanding of events. Their opinions can also deviate from the views of the author.

The Narrated EventsThe 'True' accountThe Alternate account
The Unreliable Narrator
The Reliable Narrator

This table shows how the unreliable narrator can distort events in the narrative. However, an unreliable narrator is not simply a narrator who knowingly chooses to lie to the audience.

Tip: Have you ever accidentally given a friend or another student the wrong information? Did you leave out something in the story that you did not think was important?

A literary example includes Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1884). The teenage narrator does not understand the full significance of the events he relates to the implied audience because of his inexperience.

Another famously unreliable narrator is Chuck Palahnuik's Fight Club (1996), which was made into a film in 1999, and developed a cult following. Voice-over narration in the film builds suspense and allows the audience to follow the narrator's thoughts, voice, and explanation of events as the narrator gets involved with Tyler Durden. However, the revelation that Tyler Durden is a phantom and part of the narrator's psyche makes the audience re-evaluate whether Durden was really there, or if it was the narrator who set up Fight Club.

Narrator, Unreliable account example, StudySmarterCan you trust what you are told? pixabay.com

What is an intrusive narrator?

An intrusive narrator reports, comments, and evaluates the actions and motives of characters. An intrusive narrator has defined and understandable characteristics and personality. They feature in first-person and third-person omniscient narratives. Their judgment over narrative events and characters is authoritative, yet they also 'intrude' on the narrative's events by commenting on the thoughts and feelings of characters.

An example includes George Eliot's Middlemarch (1871-1872). The intrusive, omniscient narrator reflects on Mr Casaubon's character and gives the reader a deeper insight into his mind:

Suppose we turn form outside estimates of a man, to wonder, within keener interest, what is the report of his own consciousness about his doings or capacity: with what hindrances he is carrying on his daily labor; what fading of hopes, or what deeper fixity of self-delusion the years are marking off within him; and with what spirit he wrestles against universal pressure, which will one day be too heavy for him, and bring his heart to its final pause.

This narrator interferes with the way we read the text by continually offering a moral commentary. Intrusive narrators, such as Eliot's, appear reluctant to let the novel, and narrated accounts, speak for themselves.

An unintrusive, or impersonal, narrator gives up their access to characters' feelings and motives which questions the omniscient point of view.

What is a self-conscious narrator?

A self-conscious narrator is one who draws attention to the novel's artifice, which is a characteristic of Metafiction. The self-conscious narrator uses techniques such as foregrounding and defamiliarization. The technique exposes the discrepancies between fiction and reality - and helps break the boundary between author, narrator, and reader.

One example is EL Doctorow's The Book of Daniel (1971). Daniel narrates his thesis writing and recollects memories of his life. He is self-conscious of an implied audience looking over his shoulder, and so his writing style in the novel switches between third-person and first-person point of view:

This is a thinline felt tip marker, black. This is Composition Notebook 79C made in USA by Long Island Paper Products. Inc. This is Daniel trying one of the dark covers of the Browsing Room (…) I sit at a table with a floor lamp at my shoulder.

His self-consciousness about writing the past with an audience in mind means he addresses the reader directly: 'who are you anyway? Who told you you could read this? Is nothing sacred? ' (p. 60) The self-conscious narrator is not always off-putting for the reader but makes the reader aware of their involvement in the narrative.

What is a subjective/objective narrator?

A subjective narrator is a narrator who sees events through a character's eyes and knows the thoughts and feelings, and viewpoints of that character. Subjective narrators are limited by what they feel, see, hear, etc. A subjective narrator's point of view can be:

  • First person.
  • Second person.
  • Some third person limited.

An objective narrator is considered an outside point of view that does not enter the characters' minds (except when they speculate on, or guess other character's thoughts). They, like the intrusive narrator, report, comment, and interpret events of the narrative. An objective narrator's point of view can be:

  • Some third person limited.
  • Third person omniscient.

Tip: Think of the most recognizable narrators in film and TV - what is it about Morgan Freeman, Patrick Stewart, David Attenborough, and Cate Blanchett that makes them famous narrators? Are you more likely to watch the film if they are the narrator?

What is a narrator vs a narrative point of view?

The narrator and the narrator's point of view are different, as this table demonstrates:

NarratorPoint of View
The one who is telling the story.Establishes whether the narrator and the audience are participants in the work.
The 'voice' of the work. Establishes the amount of information the reader and audience know from the text.

In summary, the narrative point of view establishes how much the narrator knows, which then affects how the narrator tells the story.

Narrator - Key takeaways

  • The narrator is the imagined 'voice' assumed to be telling the story.

  • The type of narrator is determined by the degree of participation in the story.

  • The difference between a reliable and unreliable narrator is that the reliable narrator presents a straightforward and authoritative account.

  • An unreliable narrator presents a faulty or untrustworthy interpretation or account of the story.

  • The intrusive narrator (known as the omniscient narrator) reports, comments, and evaluates the actions and motives of the characters. They 'intrude' on the narrative events.

  • The difference between a subjective and objective narrator is that the subjective narrator sees events through a character's eyes, which is limited, and by which they narrator is therefore limited by. An objective narrator is considered an outside or external point of view that does not enter the character's mind unless to speculate on their thoughts or feelings.

Narrator

The narrator is often the speaker in a narrative who either uses their own voice, assumes the voices of other people, or uses a mixture of their own voice and the voices of others.

An example of a narrator is the 'unreliable narrator', who is an untrustworthy storyteller. Their account of an event appears faulty, biased, misleading, or distorted.

The narrator is the imagined 'voice' telling the story.

An objective narrator is considered an outside point of view that does not enter the characters' minds unless to speculate or guess their thoughts and feelings.

The types of narrators are first/second/third person narrator, the objective and subjective narrator, the intrusive and self-conscious narrator, and the reliable and unreliable narrator.

In most cases, the narrator is the main character, but their degree of participation in the narrative is determined by their point of view.

Final Narrator Quiz

Question

What is a narrator?

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Answer

The narrator is the imagined 'voice' assumed to be telling the story to the audience.

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Question

What is the narrative point of view vs narrator?

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Answer

The narrative point of view establishes how much the narrator knows in the narrative, which then affects how the narrator relates the story to the audience.

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Question

What are the types of narrators?

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Answer

The types of narrators are first / second / third person narrator, the objective and subjective narrator, the intrusive and self-conscious narrator, and the reliable and unreliable narrator.

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Question

 What is a self-conscious narrator?

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Answer

 A self-conscious narrator draws attention to the novel's artifice.

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Question

 What is an objective narrator?


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Answer

An objective narrator is considered an outside point of view that does not enter the character's mind unless to speculate on their thoughts or feelings.

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Question

What is the purpose of the narrator?


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Answer

The narrator is a quasi-fictional speaker constructed for the purposes of a particular story - their role is to tell the story to an audience.

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Question

 Is the narrator a character? 


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Answer

In most cases, the narrator is the main character yet their degree of participation in the narrative is determined by their point of view and viewpoints.

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Question

Which of the following best describes a subjective narrator?


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Answer

A narrator who sees events through the character's eyes and knows their thoughts and feelings.

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Question

Which of the following best describes an intrusive narrator? 


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Answer

A narrator who encroaches on the narrative to report and comment on the events of the story.

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Question

 What is a first-person narrator?


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Answer

A narrator who uses 'I' pronouns and is usually involved as witnesses or active participants in the story's events.

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Question

 What is a second-person narrator?


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Answer

The narrator uses 'You' pronouns. These narrators create ambiguity because the reader is unsure whether they are being addressed in the work.

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Question

What is the difference between a third-person limited narrator and an omniscient narrator?


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Answer

Both narrators use she / he / they / gender-neutral pronouns. However, the third-person limited can only relate events and thoughts from their point of view. Omniscient is considered an all-knowing narrator who has special access to the thoughts of characters.

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Question

 True or False: The omniscient point of view is characteristic of a subjective narrator.

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Answer

False. 

The omniscient point of view is characteristic of the objective narrator. 

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Question

True or False: The first-person point of view is never a self-conscious narrator. 


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Answer

 False.

The first-person point of view is usually used for the self-conscious narrator. 

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Question

Which of the following does not describe a reliable narrator? 


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Answer

The narrator offers a distorted account of events.

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